In October 1988, Howard Wilkinson was appointed manager of Leeds United, tasked with transforming the club’s fortunes before it was consigned to middling obscurity.
Leeds had been playing second-tier football for six years by that point and were presented as the total manifestation of everything that was wrong with English football in the 1980s: a crap team, playing in an equally ominous stadium, wallowing in their own nostalgia.
Four years later, 25 years ago this week, they were crowned champions of England.
Yet his astonishing achievement is rarely spoken about. As the last champions of the First Division before the advent of the Premier League, Leeds wrote the final chapter of a book which nobody particularly cared about the ending of – a new genre was on its way.
Thankfully, Wilkinson’s feat is now being recognised by a film and book, both titled ‘Do You Want To Win?’, which aim to right a few wrongs in terms of the perception of that period of English football history.
Do You Want To Win?
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“You can’t talk about 1992 in isolation,” says author Daniel Chapman, who is also the co-editor of Leeds fanzine The Square Ball.
“It was a culmination of everything that had happened from October 1988, when the league renegotiated their deal with ITV. It was one of the first times the top six nearly said, ‘Well we’re just going to form our own league.’
“Basically (chairman) Leslie Silver and (managing director) Bill Fotherby said things have to change. I think they knew that the Premier League was coming.
“They knew that when the deal came up for negotiation again in 1992 they had to be either up there or nowhere. They had to get the right manager. They got Howard Wilkinson and he had this plan.”
Wilkinson’s plan was actually designed to take effect over 10 years, with the aim of reshaping the whole club: sign the right players, drill into them how to win games, invest in the academy and youth development, get promoted and, eventually, have a team ready to win the title.
That Leeds achieved the last of those aims so quickly, however, does not mean it was simple.
The Whites were loitering towards the bottom of the second tier when the new manager arrived from First Division Sheffield Wednesday, possessing a squad short of both quality and character.
Leeds would finish 10th in 1988-89, 32 points behind winners Chelsea – but come the end of the campaign a number of key figures had emerged.
Academy duo David Batty and Gary Speed had formed half of what would become a fearsome midfield; centre-back Chris Fairclough had arrived from Tottenham; and in Gordon Strachan, who was signed from Manchester United after being written off by Alex Ferguson, Wilkinson had the general he required to ensure standards never slipped on the pitch.
DO YOU WANT TO WIN?
28yrs ago this week: Strachan
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Strachan would prove to be Leeds’ talisman, but the promotion-winning midfield was only completed by the arrival of the most infamous footballer in the country: Vinnie Jones.
Jones became an instant hero on the terraces, but belied his reputation of recklessness on the pitch, collecting only three bookings all season, playing some of the best football of his career and having a profound effect on one young player in particular.
“The Strachan-Jones thing is really interesting,” says Chapman, who is also the editor of The City Talking.
“You had players like Gary Speed coming through who were shy and young and looked up to Gordon Strachan. Then you’ve got David Batty who couldn’t give a toss who Gordon Strachan was.
“Before the promotion season Batty put in a transfer request because he was sick of Wilkinson.
“He didn’t like the training, he didn’t like working for him, he didn’t like the way he was being played. He was the first player Wilkinson had dropped, and he was sick of it.
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“Strachan tells a great story of seeing David Batty at the hotel bar where they had the first team meeting, and Batty has got his feet up on a table. Batty looks at him and says, ‘Don’t even think about telling me to get my feet off the table.’
“In David Batty’s autobiography he said he respected everything Strachan had done, he was a fantastic player and it wasn’t that he didn’t like him, but he was just another person to tell him what to do.
“That’s where Vinnie Jones comes in. And Vinnie says one of the things he was brought in to do was be David Batty’s older brother, take him under his wing and sort him out. And they became best mates.
“But that’s the story of Howard Wilkinson seeing he had Strachan to appeal to one section of his squad and knowing he needed Vinnie Jones to appeal to the other. Those two were completely different, but they both wanted the same thing.”
In Wilkinson’s first full season in charge Leeds were promoted as Second Division champoions.
Lee Chapman was signed from Nottingham Forest in the January, and it was the striker’s goals which took Leeds over the finish line, with his header at Bournemouth sealing the title, but fittingly it was Strachan who provided the season’s defining moment.
After a run of only one win in seven, Leicester City arrived at Elland Road in the penultimate game of the season with Leeds unable to afford to drop any more points.
With the scores tied at 1-1 and the clock ticking down, Strachan conjured up a spine-tingling half-volley on his weaker foot, prompting the wonderful line in commentary, “Have you ever seen a better goal? And have you ever seen one better timed?” – provoking a blur of limbs on the terraces.
“Looking back and watching some of the matches, he was phenomenal,” Chapman says of Strachan, one of a number of former players he interviewed for ‘Do You Want To Win?’. “He looks magical. It was ridiculous the level he was playing at.
“The way he talks about that Leicester game is incredible. He says he can still feel that. He can still feel scoring that goal in his foot.
“He said the thought of losing or drawing was ‘horrific’, so it was his job to take everybody through that, get them through that game and win it at all costs, and he was the one who scored that goal.”
After the relief of promotion, gradually improvements on the team were phased in, starting with Gary McAllister to replace Jones in central midfield, providing an injection of finesse and the completion of Leeds’ cult midfield: Strachan, McAllister, Batty, Speed.
Tony Dorigo and Rod Wallace would arrive a year later, before a certain Eric Cantona was signed to play an (often overstated) part in helping the team finish the job – “Cantona was Cantona for five games,” Chapman says, rather pointedly.
In their first season back in the top flight, Leeds finished fourth, with Strachan named the Football Writers’ Association’s Player of the Year and Chapman scoring 31 goals in all competitions.
After being loathed in the 80s, Leeds were becoming a club to be revered once more but were still the target of plenty of vitriol and criticism, largely aimed at Sergeant Wilko’s uncompromising tactics.
Chapman says: “There was a game in 1989 against West Ham in London and it was an international weekend so every London reporter went to Upton Park, and every single one destroyed Leeds in the press and destroyed Wilkinson in the press conference.
“The Yorkshire Evening Post reporter Don Warters said he was amazed Wilkinson sat there for half an hour and took what amounted to abuse.
“That was all about Leeds supposedly been boring and cynical. I asked Wikinson about that and he said he would always ask his players, ‘Do you want to win this game or do you want to have a nice time?’ – and every single one said they wanted to win.
“He talked about assessing the other teams: ‘Have they got better players than us? Is he a better manager than me? What are we going to have to do to win?’ And that’s the first thing: you work out how to win and then you go out and do it.”
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The 1991-92 season would see Wilkinson and Leeds complete the 10-year plan six years ahead of schedule.
Battling with Ferguson’s Manchester United for the title, Leeds bulldozed plenty of teams along the way, putting six past Sheffield Wednesday, five past Wimbledon, and four past Southampton, Sheffield United, Notts County and Aston Villa.
A 4-0 defeat at Manchester City in April gave the Red Devils a sniff of glory, but while Fergie talked up his side’s chances to the press, Wilkinson remained calm, knowing his players were well-drilled enough to see it out – always emphasising the golfing analogy that they just needed to trust their swing.
“It’s interesting to read and watch and compare Howard Wilkinson and Alex Ferguson in that title run-in,” says Chapman.
“Ferguson all the way through it said, ‘My team are the best, we’re going to win. I don’t care how many games we’ve got to play, I’ve got Lee Sharpe on the bench, he’s worth £5million, he’s barely played and I can just bring this guy back. I’ve got the best reserves, everything’s going to be fine.’
“Then it starts going wrong and then he starts saying, ‘Well all the pressure is on Leeds because they’ve never won anything. None of their players have got title medals so let’s see how they handle being top.’
“He’s forgetting that John Lukic had won the league at Arsenal and that everything Ferguson had won at Aberdeen, Gordon Strachan had won with him. But Wilkinson was just saying nothing.
“The angrier Ferguson seemed to get, the more relaxed Wilkinson seemed to get. People mistake Wilkinson for dour when he was just completely laid back and calm.”
Leeds secured the title on April 26 thanks to a 3-2 win at Sheffield United, as Manchester United were beaten 2-0 at Anfield.
Yet with English football now engulfed by the Premier League, Strachan’s heroics against Leicester, Chapman’s hat-trick against Sheffield Wednesday or Batty and Speed’s embrace of sheer delight remain unmentioned outside of Leeds.
Does it rankle with the players as much as it does some of the supporters?
Chapman says: “I asked Gordon Strachan the big question: does that team get the credit it deserves? And he said, ‘I just don’t care.’
“He said all that was important was that what they did mattered to the people who were employing him and the fans. That’s who it was for and he said, ‘We did it together.’
“He really cares what Leeds fans think. Anybody else’s opinion on it he just doesn’t care. It was nothing to do with them. He wasn’t doing it for them. He was doing it for Leeds fans.”
‘Do You Want To Win?’ will serve as a reminder of just how special that team was. Whether it will succeed in doing so to a wider audience remains to be seen, but Chapman believes it is an achievement which the city itself needs to make a bigger deal of.
“The achievement overall is not that they won the league. It’s that a club in 1988 was hated, and with some justification. At the end of Wilkinson’s first season Mark Aizlewood is sticking the fingers up at his own fans. That’s a club that is rotten.
“To take a club that’s in that position and three years later to not only have won the league but also to have the country watching games like the Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday matches and say, ‘That’s a fucking good team, who would have thought Leeds would play like that?’
“I don’t think it’s enough to say Leeds got promoted and then won the league, you’ve got to look at how bad Leeds were: its team, club and city. Leeds changed as a city massively at that time.
“Quarry Hill was being built and the DHSS was having to offer people in London thousands of pounds to move to this hellhole. Then things like the Royal Armouries were announced as being built in Leeds. The Victoria Quarter opened around that time. Back To Basics, the famous house club night, started.
“All that started at once and if you package all that together and still go, ‘Oh it was just a boring long-ball manager with a bunch of Sheffield Wednesday cast offs’ – it’s a much bigger story than that.
“As a minimum it should be something the city of Leeds make more of. Nothing else since 1992 has brought 250,000 people out on the streets of Leeds together.”
Do You Want To Win? is available to buy here.
By Rob Conlon